Destination: Phu Quoc
Phu Quoc, an island that was not on my radar, was the unexpected destination for our spontaneous holiday. Now that M4 & M5 are both in primary school, it has been challenging to whisk them away whenever wanderlust beckons. Consequently, I resort to taking them with me when I travel to give talks. For instance, M5 accompanied me to Bangkok when I was Speaking At The United Nations Conference Centre.
To my great delight, a random block of three days without clinical shifts showed up recently while school was still out. Immediately, I contacted Blue Sky Escapes and asked if they could arrange something for us. Within days, our plans were settled and we were off to Phu Quoc, the biggest island in Vietnam. Until Blue Skies Escapes suggested Phu Quoc, I did not know anything about it, let alone how to pronounce it. So this holiday was quite an education for me. Here are the lessons I learnt.
Lesson One: Reimagining Holiday Accommodation
Bill Bensley’s Story
When the kids found out we were spending their school holiday at a university, they were slightly concerned. However I assured them this was completely fictional, borne out the imagination of Bill Bensley. In fact, the kids had fun pointing out elements of the hotel that support the story. For instance, when we arrived, the hall had books, trophies and even a student handbook that contained the resort map. Official photos from the website can be found here: https://www.marriott.com/hotels/hotel-photos/pqcjw-jw-marriott-phu-quoc-emerald-bay-resort-and-spa/.
As we explored the luxurious resort, it was easy to appreciate how it looked like a sprawling university campus with its football field and gymnasium, the Department of Physical Education. My favourite spot was the bar by the beach, also known as the Department of Chemistry. Giant atoms hung from the ceiling while references to the periodic table dotted the bar. Dressed in white lab coats, the mixologists experimented with various cocktails. I had a couple. Based on presentation, originality & flavour, I would give them nothing less than an A Star.
Department of Humans & Other Wonderful Spaces
Past the Department of Mammals, our room was within the block of the Department of Humans. Photographs and pictures of people from different cultures lined the corridors. What we loved most about the beautiful room was, ironically, the view of the Emerald Bay outside. M4 enjoyed spending time in the generous balcony at night, listening to the sound of the waves crashing. In the morning, the first thing he did was to return to the same spot, sitting quietly. As I myself find the sea calming, I observed this and understood him perfectly.
In contrast, M5’s favourite space was the Kids’ Club where she dashed about busily. Although the climbing nets, slides and ball pits were lots of fun, what differentiated this playroom was the service. The babysitter was kind and able to keep the children entertained while watching out for everyone’s safety. Even with all the kids screaming, she maintained her cool. To be honest, I feel like she would’ve made a great addition to my team at the Children’s Emergency.
As for me, wherever I went instantly turned into a magical space when the kids were there. It may be that all mothers feel this. But prettily painted walls, manicured gardens & insta-perfect pools just got a lot brighter for me with the kids around. That layer of happiness is something no filter can mimic.
Exploring Phu Quoc
Lesson Two: Exploring Like A Tourist Can Be Fun
Blue Sky Escapes & the Marriott had arranged for a car to drive up North to Vinpearl Safari. On the way, we dropped by an apiary. Although M5 was fearful of the buzzing bees, M4 had a great time holding up combs of honey under guidance. I could see they had lots more to offer but it was difficult because they spoke no English and we spoke no Vietnamese. Hence, we left quickly to continue our way to the zoo.
By the time we got to Vinpearl Zoo & Safari, it was starting to get quite hot. Thankfully there were fun activities for the kids in the shade, like the petting zoo and giraffe cafe.
I have never been so grateful to see an air-conditioned bus as when we trudged up to the safari. As we drove through secure sections, various animals milled around us. The most anticipated sections were where the predators prowled. We scanned our surroundings and excitedly counted all the tigers we saw, camouflaged among blades of grass. In another section, prides of lions ambled around at close range. Bears ran next to our bus, much to the delight of photographers. However my favourite sections were the watering holes where the prey animals gathered in droves. As we gasped and chattered about the rhinos, deer and zebras around us, I couldn’t help but wonder if I should take the kids to Africa at some stage.
Although the trip to Vinpearl Safari was about 90 minutes, it was well worth the trip. When we left, the kids were grinning from ear to ear.
On the way back to the hotel, we drove past fishing village and stopped to photograph the sunset. Although we eat at his restaurant, one of the fishermen was kind enough to allow M4 to catch a crab with his net. We strolled back along the pier and headed towards Starfish Beach.
Starfish Beach is interestingly named because there were more people than starfish.
When we arrived, the kids had chosen to dig around for starfish at a spot next to a swing, a rainbow coloured staircase with a pier in the background. I took some photos when we were alone and thought to myself how random that swing & staircase were in the middle of the water. Unbeknownst to us, we had stumbled into a triangle of Instagram frames. Consequently as the sun set magnificently, casting hues of padparascha across the blue sky, I noticed crowds appear. Throngs of people stepped delicately over my kids as they tried to take selfies without anyone else in them. I was tempted to take a photo of everyone doing this at the same time, each avoiding the other. However I figured since I was on holiday, like all these innocent people, my sarcastic humour should take one too.
In any case, M4 & M5 had a whale of time playing with sandcastles in the murky water where we counted only four starfish. Perhaps the starfish didn’t like crowds of instagrammers cramping their style.
Lesson Three: Learning About Joy From My Kids
Whomever said it’s not about the destination but the journey, must’ve traveled with kids. Through this trip, I learnt how to be joyful despite trying circumstances.
One of the curveballs was that we missed our connection flying from Kuala Lumpur to Phu Quoc due to an error by the airline. Although I was deeply disappointed at spending the whole day, from morning to night in airports, I was impressed by the kids. They cheerily chatted with friendly strangers who turned out to be famous Singaporean theatre actors. Wherever there was a toy store they gamely walked through the aisles with me, explaining various characters. As I grew up in a generation that played with He-Man & Mask, I was mystified by LOL dolls and OMG dolls but interested in the empires that have been created.
Even after 12 hours in various airports, when the last flight was delayed, they amused themselves with whatever they could lay their hands on. Ear plugs. Vomit bags. It was as if they had boundless optimism.
When we were in Phu Quoc, among the fairy lights in sea breeze, everything felt awesome. I wondered if we could stay away forever. After all, the feeling of pure happiness seems elusive sometimes.
Upon our arrival, when M6 saw M5 in the airport, he ran forward as fast as his little legs could carry him, and jumped into her arms. In that moment I knew we were happy anywhere together. Home especially.